The Advent season readings are a call to live fully in the present, doing what we can to make the best of it, but always with the expectation that the future will be beyond anything we can imagine or desire.
The great tide of Christmas consumerism is already rolling in. The tinsel stars have been twinkling in the Warehouse and the Farmers for over a month now, and the countdown of shopping days is ticking ever louder. A Lady Gaga fragrance pack for under $50 in honour of the season.
Your human worth as a lover, parent, friend is on the line.
If you haven’t bought all your presents in time, you will not be forgiven. Christmas peace is conditional on Christmas spending.
Against this tide, there runs another current, not so well advertised, harder to see and hear. It’s there in the music we have in church and in concerts like The Messiah; it peeps out in the Advent calendars children enjoy, window by window; it echoes in some of the popular songs of the season that fill the air waves – wistful, retrospective, longing for lost childhoods and dreams long broken - what might have been, what still could be.
This Advent current is a mixed blessing for retailers who never use it as marketing point. It slows Christmas coming, it invites us to pause before we spend, to stop and wonder. It’s a current that runs on impossible promises and the greatest expectations, that looks ahead to some future time when what seems impossible now might still happen. This Advent current is hard to sell, though the movie of Lloyd Jones’ novel Mr Pip, does it brilliantly. A washed up old schoolteacher, with no books but Charles Dickens Great Expectations, uses the story to give hope and new life to a desolated village in Bouganville during the civil war.
Biblically the Advent readings run along two tracks. One is about judgement and catastrophe and apocalyptic doom and the rapture where I’ll be plucked up into the air and you, standing next to me will be left.
Clay preached on those texts which are repeated today in the new lectionary for the church’s year that begins today, repeated just in case we overlook them. Clay showed us how embedded that tradition is in our Judeo Christian heritage, and how unenthusiastic Jesus was about trying to second guess or fixate on those texts.
But they will go on getting more attention than they deserve, not least because Russell Crowe is about to launch a movie where he plays Noah battling the Great Flood in 3D and surround sound.
The Advent current takes another track in readings that see the future more filled with promise than doom. The prophet Isaiah is a primary source of this current and his vision resonates through so much Advent music.
Isaiah’s vision was born in the eighth century before Christ at a time when Israel and Judah were besieged on all sides at least as desperate as our present as our present day calamities; the typhoons and suicide bombers, destruction of rain forests and the sea bed, climate change and wars and water pollution. We don’t have to wait for the apocalypse. If you live in Syria or the Philipinnes or the sub Sahara or northern Uganda, if you’re an Anglican parishioner of All Saints Peshawar in Pakistan where 300 were killed or injured by a suicide bomber last week, its already here.
And yet, despite those nightmares of apocalypse now, we read these Isaiah promises of redemption on this Advent Sunday and dare to believe they might be true, through a glass darkly now, but one day face to face in all their fullness.
And just what are these promises? They are all about a passion for justice and peace that God intends all people to enjoy, those we call enemies as well as friends; a vision of a world caught up in the shalom of God.
The prophet Micah uses the same words as Isaiah but adds a verse of his own about the future God intends – where everyone will find rest beneath their own fig tree or grape vine.
Let’s look more carefully at these promises.
This is not an apocalyptic vision that comes from above, dropping down from the heavens disembodied and swooping us up and away, a spirituality that thrives when its disconnected from the everyday and the ordinary, that has to have its feet three feet above the ground, close encounters of a third kind.
Isaiah offers a very different vision. He’s talking about something that comes up from below, that is forged from the raw material of our humanity and our history, that belongs in our very local landscape.
The flow of this Advent season is from the bottom up, very diverse people walking upward together against the tide of fear and superstition and the tyranny of greedy empires and unregulated market places. And they’re heading towards an impossible hilltop.
In Jerusalem the highest hill is the mount of Olives. The temple mount is 100 feet below. But in this vision it becomes the highest mountain, the geography transformed by this justice driven, peace seeking flow of divine energy that reshapes the old war torn landscape.
This new place that makes room for all peoples will be a peaceable kingdom where the tools of war become the instruments of gardening and harvesting. Outside the UN headquarters in New York there is a magnificent statue depicting this verse, a worker stretching every muscle in the effort it takes to transform weapons of death into ploughshares for life. Ironically the statue was given by the old Soviet Union at the height of the communist empire.
This peace God promises is hammered out of the contradictions and corruptions of our life, it relies on ordinary people to make extraordinary efforts to find common ground, friends and enemies alike. The vision of a peaceable kingdom only happens when we make space and find respect for the people we can’t stand, who are not like us. This has to start with us. In the words of our own liturgy:
We know that we are the ones who are divided and that we are the ones who must come back together.
It has to start with Christians in Dunedin welcoming the new centre for Muslims, with Israel and Iran finding common ground on nuclear energy, with restorative justice becoming more than an optional extra in our court system.
A peaceable kingdom and a teachable kingdom. This is a vision about willingness to learn from and listen to each other. Last Sunday we celebrated the legacy of our bicultural church and nation, a legacy laden with two peoples talking past each other, deaf ears to the cry of the dispossessed, unless you speak my language I won’t listen. Isaiah’s vision is one where Israelites have to engage with Canaanites and Babylonians and Arameans and all the people they love to hate.
But the hardest feature about this vision that will let us one day rest under our own fig tree, or grape vine, in a house of our own when we all find a way to afford to buy one; the hardest feature is the requirement to live with a double focus on both present and future.
There is no skill in being preoccupied with our present reality, especially when it weighs heavy, as it does. The challenge, and it is a holy challenge because we can’t manage it alone, is to grasp hold of that future time, way, way ahead perhaps, when the glimpses we have now of whatever is peaceful and good and honourable will flourish and blossom in all their fullness.
Dare to hold onto that vision, even in the hardest times now, just as the slaves in Mississippi did when they sang “ain’t going to study war no more, down by the riverside”; as the children of Parihaka did when they picnicked and sang in front of the cavalry troops waiting to ransack the village and arrest the peacemakers Te Whiti and Tohu.
Learn to be the people with double vision; trusting in a God who is in our midst in the worst of times, and a God who holds a future open for us that will be the best of times.
Dare to believe that is possible. Dare to live with great expectations.
That’s the call of this Advent season. To trust that that our present time is threaded through with strands of a future beyond our imagining.